Ikechi Uko (L) and Richard Sandall
After unearthing Naija 7 Wonders to the global tourism world, the project director Ikechi Uko tells Adewole Ajao about the new frontier for the lucky seven sites
With innumerable things to do within the shortest possible time, Ikechi Uko is not easy to pin down for an interview. But rare occasions often come up. Conspicuous in his trademark fedora and neck scarf while waiting at the Kotoka International Airport in the Ghanaian capital for the announcement of the Accra- Lagos flight, a few minutes of talk and it was easy to see that the lanky fellow definitely has tourism flowing in his veins. It is his oxygen, and has buoyed him to create several initiatives aimed at giving greater prominence to an overlooked sector of the economy. Already in his quiver lies the ATQ (African Travel Quarterly) Magazine, Akwaaba and Bantaaba Travel fairs that have gathered a large chunk of followers since their debut on local shores. Much of this lies in their importance as regional travel marketing platforms. Uko’s most recent project was the Naija 7 Wonders which was concluded last year. After a long period of evaluation by a committee comprising tourism stakeholders, the lucky seven sites were Obudu Mountain Resort, Cross River State; Sukur Kingdom, Adamawa State; Osun Groove, Osogbo, Osun State; Kano Walls, Kano State; Oke Idanre Hills, Ondo State; Benin Moat, Edo State and the National War Museum, Umuahia, Abia State.
Two Years to Execute
Uko said the dreams took two years to come to life after several hurdles on its way to the Promised Land. From 100 selected sites, the list was gradually pruned down to 55 and later 20 sites. These were later reduced to 15 before seven made the final cut. Uko recalled that it was no easy feat due to the immensity of effort involved. But its contribution to the tourism industry has been hailed repeatedly across the sector. Apart from NTDC Director-General Otunba Segun Runsewe referring to it as “an epoch in the advancement of tourism development in Nigeria” during the initial leg of an award-giving ceremony for the Naija 7 Wonders team in Lagos on June 5, the results have also earned other forms of praise. Uko recalled that it was a complete opposite of feelers he got before the project started.
“To get it, we were told it wasn’t possible and there was no way Nigerians would accept for somebody to now say you are choosing seven (wonders). People said that every Nigerian is so selfish he would not accept anything that his village is not involved in. We were mindful of that when we started and made sure the project was run in a very transparent way. There were fifty members of the committee and all of them got involved.”
Expanding on Plan
Already, the move to develop the sites as viable income earners has kicked off. Uko said this expands on an earlier plan for interested tour operators to register before their customers can partake of the wonders facilities. Sadly, just 15 tour operators have registered with the Naija 7 Wonders, a bleak figure given the number of potential tourists in the country. But Uko remains optimistic about the future of the project. “We want to enhance the value of the sites and make them visitor-friendly. Outside Obudu Cattle Ranch, no other site has any form of organisation. We want to put together a proper product that will deliver. We are looking at monuments and other things I don’t want to mention.”
“We have seen so many people try to copy the idea of seven wonders. We don’t mind anyway because we are achieving the purpose for which we started the project which was to create a sense of national pride and also help tourism. When other people buy into the idea, it is good news for us.”
Low Level of State Tourism
With the sites being located in particular states, Uko, who was present during the evaluation, lamented the low level of development on ground. According to him, this left a lot to be desired from states in the area of tourism and maintenance of their offerings.
“My biggest problem was that outside Cross River State, a lot of other states did not care. Everyone talks about tourism, but they didn’t care. There are places we wanted to go and people were asking me to come and pay them to promote their villages. I am not from there and there is no benefit for me. That lack of understanding was missing. I am not from Cross River State but everyone who has been in tourism in Nigeria will tell you that outside NTDC and Cross River State, you have an absence of understanding about things that need to be done.”
The Cross River Example
With the Obudu Cattle Ranch and TINAPA initiatives being giant leaps that other states have yet to emulate years on, the ATQ publisher felt the tourism blueprint of Cross River was still one other states had to beat. He said: “Most of the states do not know what they should be doing so you see staccato movements in several directions. You have not integrated the product or made it visitor-friendly, and you’re going all over the world, insisting the product is ready. I have not seen the kind of interest, concentration and consistency we have seen with what Cross River did. I have been to the state before and after and there is a concentration of effort.
“They are not only doing one end, they are going on different levels. For most of the states in Nigeria that is absent. None of their products is integrated into the international travel year. Tourism is about channels.”
Increasing Traffic to the Sites
Uko also revealed plans for increasing traffic to the selected sites as destination marketing projects. With travel agents upbeat that the $1bn generated in 2011 by 600 travel operators on a BSP platform can increase, Uko’s confidence is soaring. Such optimism precedes the eight edition of Akwaaba Travel market which holds in October. After the successful hosting of the Abuja Bantaaba in April, he revealed plans for a new event that will be launched next year. “The next phase of Naija 7 Wonders is marketing. We are preparing marketing materials for all those sites after enhancing the value,” Uko said. “Our promise and plan is that each of those towns should get at least a million visitors. We want to show, just like we did with Akwaaba, that we can do something people said could not work and make it work. Nobody ever believed someone could pull off something like Akwaaba in Nigeria. But we did it, and it is marketable. We also believe we can do the same with the Seven Wonders sites.”